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Semarang and the Chinese treasure fleet

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Lying almost midway along the northern coast of Java, Semarang is a port city with a deep Chinese connection. It is particularly famous for lumpia, the spring rolls introduced by Hokkien-speaking immigrants, while many local dishes use tofu as an important base. The influence extends beyond the culinary sphere, for it is in Semarang that a magnificent temple pays homage to the greatest admiral in Chinese history.

Roughly a century before Columbus set sail to the Americas, Ming Dynasty China was outfitting the first of seven maritime expeditions to cross the Indian Ocean. The goals were not so different to later Europeans: these exploits were an attempt to exert China’s imperial authority over maritime trade, while extending its ‘civilising influence’ over the ‘barbarian peoples’. China would establish relations with unknown kingdoms and ask them to join the existing tributary system – in which delegations brought gifts to the Ming emperor and acknowledged his supremacy.

Each of these expeditions involved the creation of colossal ‘treasure fleets’ with up to 317 ships carrying almost 28,000 men. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who had proved his mettle in several military campaigns, would lead them all.

The fleet left China in the autumn of 1405, after the arrival of the northeast monsoon. All but one of the seven expeditions made stops in Java, with the longest being a four-month sojourn on the final voyage. In those days the island’s eastern half formed the core realm of the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that was once the preeminent power in Southeast Asia.

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An elevated pavilion at Sam Poo Kong

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Entering a large square in front of the temples

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Roof decorations – a procession of ‘crouching beasts’

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A ceremonial gateway at the far end of the square

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Looking across the fish pond

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Guardian lions at the main temple

Zheng He arrived in Java when Islam was starting to make inroads into the Majapahit realm. The Malay Annals of Semarang and Cerbon, a controversial text that first came to light in the 1960s, suggests that the visits of the treasure fleet led to the foundation of Chinese Muslim communities throughout Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. It is also written that Zheng He appointed an individual to oversee those thriving communities.

On Java, Chinese Muslim leaders encouraged their followers to take on local names and adopt the Javanese way of life. Even today, the Javanese have not forgotten his role in helping to propagate Islam on what was then a predominantly Hindu-Buddhist island; a relatively new mosque in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second city – bears his name.

But of all the Javanese harbour towns the treasure fleet might have visited, none identifies with its admiral quite as much as Semarang. San Bao Long, the Chinese moniker for the city, is derived from Zheng He’s alternate name, Ma San Bao. According to the Malay Annals, the treasure fleet stopped here for a month in 1413 to undergo repairs, and Zheng He and his translator Ma Huan regularly visited the Chinese mosque for prayers. But there is no mention of Semarang in contemporary Chinese accounts, not even in Ma Huan’s own treatise on the countries he visited during those voyages.

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At the threshold to the inner compound

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Above the entrance to the main temple, this tablet reads “His Excellency San Bao”

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The enormous bronze statue of Zheng He, erected in 2011

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Taking a family portrait

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Glazed ceramic figures

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Sam Poo Kong under near-cloudless skies

Instead, the events surrounding the arrival of Zheng He are largely rooted in oral history and folklore. It is said that the admiral landed in the vicinity of Semarang after a number of his crew members fell ill. The treasure fleet dropped anchor at the estuary of the Kali Garang, where he found a cave in a nearby hillside to use for prayer. A temple was later built at the site and dedicated to the worship of Zheng He. It acquired the name Sam Poo Kong – Hokkien for ‘San Bao Cave’ – while it was known as Gedung Batu, ‘Stone Building’, to the native Javanese.

The original cave and temple collapsed in a landslide in 1704, but a new cave was hollowed out and the temple rebuilt several times over the following centuries. Sam Poo Kong’s latest incarnation was only completed in 2005, blending Chinese and Javanese architecture into one eclectic whole. That hybrid nature is perfectly representative because Zheng He is venerated by people from both ethnic groups – by Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists alike.

At Sam Poo Kong, the main hall is flanked by several smaller temples. One contains the burial place of the admiral’s deputy Wang Jinghong, another a sacred anchor said to belong to the treasure fleet. Still another holds a weapon supposedly used by Zheng He himself. It is strange to consider what the admiral would have made of his cult of worship today – and the annual parade in Semarang on the date of his arrival.

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Carved dragons on the pillars of the elevated pavilion, presumably a performance space

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Inside the pavilion

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Framed views and upswept eaves

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Festive decorations at Tay Kak Sie temple, also in Semarang

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Zheng He’s statue outside Tay Kak Sie

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Lanterns and incense smoke

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Catching the late afternoon sun

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. I had no idea that the Chinese name of Semarang is derived from Ma San Bao. How fascinating! Traveling to some of the places Zheng He went to (especially Malacca and Sri Lanka) was such an eye-opening experience for me. I remember staying for a long time near the display of the treasure ships in the museum in Malacca. The scale of the expeditions was truly mind-boggling.

    By the way, I cycle almost every morning on the banks of Kali Garang. 🙂 But it is impossible for a ship to navigate the river today.

    February 11, 2016
    • Thank you for taking me to Sam Poo Kong, Bama – I knew I had to visit once I read your post! The scale of it was really impressive and I loved all the colourful detailing. Retracing Zheng He’s footsteps really gave us a common reference throughout the trip. I think the museum in Malacca was one of the highlights of our time there… we must have spent hours and hours poring over the exhibits. 🙂

      February 11, 2016
  2. Great pictures and thanks for the information!

    February 11, 2016
    • You’re welcome – thanks in turn for reading!

      February 12, 2016
  3. To think that China was the wealthiest and most technologically advanced civilization and nation on the planet for about 1,500 years—an era that seems to have ended soon after the last of Zheng He’s voyages with the fleet he commanded. The British scholar and Cambridge Don Joseph Needhom, “The Man Who Loved China” by Simon Winchester, wanted to find an answer to why China stopped being #1 in the world in so many ways and after decades of research he died not knowing.

    February 11, 2016
    • It sounds like a mystery that may never be solved. Maybe the question we should be asking now is this: will China ever reclaim the #1 spot in the future? With its slowing economy, a rapidly ageing population, gender imbalance and other deep-rooted problems, it’s hard to say at this point. I didn’t know about the work of Joseph Needhom or Winchester’s book about him – thanks for bringing those to my attention.

      February 12, 2016
  4. I would have never thought those buildings and decorations were anywhere but China! The influence was/is indeed very strong!

    February 12, 2016
    • It is mostly Chinese, but something about the roofs and how they are stacked suggests the influence of another architectural tradition. The differences are quite subtle! There was also a Javanese pavilion that I missed in the temple compound – it was hidden behind a cluster of banyan trees.

      February 12, 2016
  5. Gorgeous photos, stories, historical insight and more!!!

    February 12, 2016
    • Thanks, Carissa! I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

      February 12, 2016
  6. Hardly seems like Indonesia

    February 12, 2016
    • It may well be one of the biggest Chinese temples in the country.

      February 12, 2016
  7. What a magnificent post James ~ showing not just incredible photographs, but bringing Zheng He to life. I did not know the history with the San Bao Long name, or that it was derived from Zheng He’s alternate name, Ma San Bao. Loved all the insight you brought in this post.

    February 14, 2016
    • Thank you so much, Randall! I would have liked some people shots here too – maybe a few of the worshippers lighting incense – but there were signs asking visitors not to enter the sanctuary.

      February 14, 2016
  8. It is interesting to see the Chinese influence on so many parts of Asia. I didn’t realize they were so intent on spreading influence so long ago. The things you learn reading your blog 🙂

    That temple is really beautiful. I really like the shot (2nd from bottom) of lanterns and incense.

    February 15, 2016
    • I wasn’t expecting the temple to be quite so huge – it almost felt like a palace. Hopefully you will get to visit the next time you return to Indonesia. 🙂

      February 15, 2016
  9. Hi! I really like this post, it’s really interesting.
    When I read it I was able to imagine everything you’ve written. The photos did the remaider 😉
    You’ve included in few words the essential things to see and to do.
    Well done!

    February 15, 2016
    • Thanks very much! I’m glad you enjoyed both the writing and pictures. 🙂

      February 15, 2016
  10. Of course, we know the Chinese were more advanced than Europe way back in the day, but I had no idea they were the ones who brought Islam to…anywhere! That’s the great thing about your posts…all this info. And of course, the photos. I love the 4th one of tiled roof.

    February 19, 2016
    • I think it was the Gujarati and Arab traders who first brought Islam to Java, although the efforts of Chinese Muslims like Zheng He also made an impact. But it is almost unthinkable today… especially with China ruled by a communist government supicious of all religious activity (Islam, Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular). Sometimes I look at modern-day China and India and wonder what happened. Why were the ancients so much more open and accepting?

      February 20, 2016
  11. The site is kept in fantastic shape…who funds this place?

    March 2, 2016
    • I have no idea, Jean. It is most likely a group of prominent local businessmen with ties to the temple.

      March 2, 2016
  12. Sam Poo Kong seems like a fitting tribute to Zheng He. The carved dragons in the pavilion look magnificent! I am intrigued by the fact that he is venerated to such an extent. Would love to retrace his steps, and yours, through Malacca and Srilanka. Thanks for another fascinating post James.

    March 31, 2016
    • You’re welcome, Madhu. Malacca doesn’t have a temple dedicated to him like in Semarang, but there’s a wonderful museum that most visitors don’t seem to visit. His presence in Sri Lanka is less celebrated – the most intriguing evidence we found was a stele inscribed in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. It was discovered in Galle and eventually moved to the National Museum in Colombo.

      April 1, 2016
  13. amy #

    Hi James,

    I myself have been to HK many times! Wanted to tell you that your blog is amazing!

    April 21, 2016
    • Thanks for the compliment, Amy. Best of luck with all your blogging!

      April 24, 2016

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